The Sheikh's Virgin(Desert Rogues, Book 13)(49) by Susan Mallery
He started to say something, but she raised her hand. “Don’t,” she told him. “There’s nothing you can say. No. Wait. I take that back. There’s one thing. Tell me one thing I’ve done to you to make you think that. One thing. Give me a single example, because I’m not seeing it. Who have I hurt here? Where was I mean or difficult or so incredibly awful that you can’t even consider I might have feelings for you? Was it with Rasha? With Sa’id? Did I steal? Did I lie? Did I not give everything I had here?”
“I can’t.” His voice was quiet.
She turned away. “Right. You can’t. But that doesn’t matter because this isn’t about me. It’s easy to make me the bad guy because then you don’t have to look at yourself.”
“Victoria, do not go there.”
She tried to laugh and couldn’t. “You can’t stop me, Kateb. I don’t care that you’re the prince. What I care about is that you’re the man I fell in love with. But you’re still caught up in what happened five years ago.”
She spun to look at him. “It was bad. Probably the worst thing anyone could go through. The death of a loved one is devastating. I know that. I respect that you loved Cantara. But you’re not dead yet and you still get to have a life.”
“That is not for you to say,” he yelled. “I don’t want this. Any of it. I will marry again because it is my duty, but it will be different. A marriage of convenience.”
“Is that what Cantara would have wanted? Would she be proud of you right now?”
“Do not speak of her!”
“What do my words change? She was your wife, Kateb. You knew her best. Is this her doing or yours? Not loving again won’t bring her back.”
“Nothing about this concerns you.”
“Of course it does. I love you and you don’t believe me. How is that not my business? I’ll accept that you don’t share my feelings. I get that maybe this isn’t what you wanted. But that’s not what you’re telling me. You’re turning your back on the rest of your life because you’re afraid of getting hurt again.”
“Yes. That’s all this is about.” The more she said, the more she knew it was true. “I love you, Kateb. You can refuse to listen, but that doesn’t change the truth. I love you enough that I want you to be happy, even if it’s not with me. But what you’re doing…it’s wrong. Worse, it’s cowardly. You’re afraid to try again because you don’t want to risk losing someone else you love. But what is life if not taking chances? Those who try the most get the most. You’re sentencing yourself and your future wife to years of mediocrity, all because you’re terrified.”
She drew a breath. “I thought those in charge were supposed to lead by example. Apparently that’s not you. Do as I say, not as I do? Is that what you’ll tell your children?”
He didn’t fight back. Victoria would have taken him on but he didn’t give her the chance. He simply left and she was alone, again.
It hurt just as much as it had before, but it wasn’t as shocking. She wanted to believe that he would get it. She wanted to trust in love and hope and everything good. But how could she fight a man who wouldn’t try?
She supposed the good news was that he had to have some feelings for her or he wouldn’t be so angry about her telling him she loved him. If he didn’t care at all, he would probably keep her around. Having her love him would feed his ego, if nothing else.
But knowing he had feelings and refused to acknowledge them only deepened her sadness. She touched her aching stomach. She had days, maybe hours, and then it was finished. In the beauty of the warm, sunny afternoon, she heard the ticking of an invisible clock. One that counted down until everything was over and she would never see Kateb again.
Bowing to the inevitable, Victoria started packing that afternoon. When it was time, she wanted to go quickly. No lingering, no regrets. Then the healing could begin.
She would have to go to the market one last time. She wouldn’t tell anyone she was leaving, but the visit would be her private way of saying goodbye. Maybe she would spring for another pair of earrings from Rasha’s store. Something to remember the village by. She wouldn’t need anything to remember Kateb. She had a feeling she would never forget him.
She’d filled one suitcase and was starting on another when Yusra burst into the harem. The old woman looked wild-eyed. Victoria’s first thought was for Kateb.
“What’s wrong?” she demanded. “What happened?”
“There’s a challenger. I don’t know who.”
Victoria looked puzzled. “Challenger for what?”
“Kateb as leader.” Yusra grabbed her arm. “We have to do something.”
“I don’t understand. What does a challenger matter?”
Yusra pressed her free hand to her chest, as if trying to catch her breath. “It is tradition. Kateb was nominated and in the time up to him being named, someone can challenge the elders’ decision.”
“That can’t make the elders feel good,” Victoria said, still not sure what the deal was. “So how do they decide? Do people vote?”
“No. This is a challenge, not an election. They fight for the position.”
Fight? As in…the fight Kateb had described to her before? “How?”
“With broadswords. In the arena. The winner is the next leader. The winner is the man who survives. The fight is to the death.”
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